The agonising anticipation of my A Level results day back in 2018 was greeted with an enormous sense of relief when I discovered that I had smashed my final exams and was heading to university. Everything I had worked tirelessly for over the last couple of years had finally paid off. So, why did I start my new journey into further education filled with dread and terror?
Starting university is an undeniably overwhelming experience for many students, fueled by the exhaustion of having to constantly introduce yourself to everybody you meet. Feelings of inadequacy, incompetency, and failure began to surface pretty early on in the semester, and I found myself comparing every inch of my life to those around me. I felt immense pressure to re-invent myself, to consistently please and impress others, even if it meant sacrificing my own identity. The social comparison, self-doubt, and paranoid perfectionism became wearisome, and I started to feel as though the admissions team had made a huge mistake and I shouldn’t be there.
The fear of being exposed as a fraud meant that I became immensely isolated and disconnected, not just from people, but from experiences and opportunities that were rightfully mine for the taking. I was pretty quick to dismiss these irrational thoughts that surfaced and decided to throw myself head first into academia and my studies. Yet, I constantly felt as though I was swimming against the tide, working twice as hard just to meet the levels that people around me were already at. I doubted and downplayed all of my previous achievements, felt guilty whenever I was praised for something, and truly believed that I had fooled everybody into thinking that I was capable of far more than I actually was.
After expressing how I felt to somebody, I soon discovered that I was experiencing something called imposter syndrome, and more importantly, that I was not alone. This is defined as being a ‘psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and creates a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud.’ Sound familiar? Imposter syndrome can be felt at differing degrees and intensities, and while some are more prone to suffering from it than others, it is something that is frequently experienced by students. It is not something that is restricted to particular types of people, and it is not university specific, but it is real and often tormenting to live with. Even since educating myself on the topic, this is something that doesn’t merely vanish overnight. One habit of mine that I am still trying to shake is never being content with my own abilities or achievements in the present moment. We all have aspirations, but when it becomes something that determines your self-worth or how accomplished you are on a day-to-day basis, it can leave you feeling defeated. Saying to yourself I will be accomplished only once I have achieved a, b, and c can be overwhelmingly harmful to your mindset. And more often than not you’re never guaranteed feelings of success and contentment once you’ve achieved those things. Instead, you’re left wanting to raise the bar even higher and it becomes a damaging cycle of setting unattainable standards and never feeling valid enough.
Most people, whether they’re a student or have been in a career for a decade, will have felt like an imposter at some point during their life. Emma Watson, who has always been an inspiration of mine, once told Vogue that receiving recognition for her work makes her feel “incredibly uncomfortable” and “like an imposter”. So even those who you might not suspect will have experienced similar thoughts to some extent.
Truthfully, imposter syndrome can occur in both competitive and non-competitive environments, but with an increasing amount of students now opting for STEM subjects at university level, it can have a detrimental impact on mental and physical well-being. And yet there still appears to be a stigma of shame associated with it that causes people, like myself, to put these feelings down to being too sensitive, or even undermining the impact that this has on self-confidence, academic performance, and engagement and attendance in classes. It is a subject which the seriousness of should not be taken lightly, but there are methods of attempting to overcome it.
We can’t all be imposters. It is important to acknowledge yourself, redefine your own capabilities, and realise that not everybody thrives in an academic classroom, for example. Perhaps your greatest strength is that you’re a people person, or that you’re creative, or hard-working. One thing that I remind myself of on a daily basis is that success is relative. Nobody has walked in your shoes, and so you become successful in your own capacity. Coming to terms with and accepting your mistakes, weaknesses, and imperfections does not mean that you are not worthy or that you don’t belong exactly where you are. Another effective way of gaining confidence and picking up skills is just faking it. The ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ motto exists for a reason, and by doing so you’re still practising something you eventually want to accomplish. Finally, express your feelings, and talk to somebody that you trust. Imposter syndrome is a battlefield of undesirable thoughts and emotions, and while university can be a stimulating opportunity to grow and thrive as an individual, it can also be exceedingly demanding if you’re not in the right headspace.
Everybody has talents and abilities, and something that you admire about somebody else does not undervalue the assets that you already possess. Acknowledge your strengths and the assets that make you capable of achieving whatever it is that you set your mind to.
You are not a fraud. You are worthy of your place and you are not alone.